Did you know that Cirque du Soleil runs a social circus program, Cirque du Monde, for at-risk youth in over 80 communities worldwide?
I didn't, until I read this recent article on CircusTalk, but I have since been delving into the subject of 'social circus' on them there internets and feeling seriously inspired. Circus arts outreach might seem a bit wishy-washy. It's not like it's financial aid, healthcare, trauma counseling or any of those other vital things, right? No, but it's effects do sound incredible.
Cirque du Monde combines the teaching of circus skills with social intervention; providing a safe and fun space for young people, and encouraging the development of things like self-confidence, perseverance and discipline, getting/staying healthy (for instance in South Africa, it's used to motivate kids with HIV to follow their treatments) and feelings of trust and community. Just watch this:
Don't get me wrong, aside from my obvious predisposition to love anything that spreads circus, I'm as suspicious and numb to do-gooding as the next over-media-ed 21st century drone. But I have to say it's pretty convincing. The clincher for me was this quote from a Cirque du Soleil 'Community Worker's Guide' book:
Yes. Yes! That can only be a force for good in the world, surely? I'm sold.'Circus arts have traditionally been linked with certain forms of marginality (nomadic existence, balancing acts, exuberance, artistic creativity, disguises, etc.) that are naturally attractive to young people. Those who live in situations excluded from society find in it a positive and constructive mirror of their own marginality, as well as a means of doing it justice...Social circus does not seek to standardize or water down the marginal side of the participants or try to force them to conform at any price, but rather aims at providing young people with the tools to learn to communicate with the community from the fringes.'
It's not just the Cirque du Monde projects either, there are other smaller schemes and groups quietly dotting the globe. Closer to home (for me), there are organisations like the quite frankly wonderful-sounding Mimbre, who are based in East London.
I haven't had the opportunity to see any of their shows yet, but Mimbre's website says that they create acrobatic theatre, performing in unconventional settings and 'reclaiming some beauty in the urban environment...through strong imagery, visual poetry and emotional content'. They also run a participation programme that allows kids from low-income households in Hackney to learn acrobatics and take part in creative projects.
Although I wasn't previously aware of 'social circus' or circus therapy as a thing, as someone who has had (tedious, irritating) body image issues since teenage, I did know about the therapeutic effects of circus skills classes - just from the few I've taken. You don't have to be from a socially excluded / disadvantaged sector of society, young, or have gone through a horrific experience, to feel the benefits - although of course these groups can benefit the most, and deserve to do so. You can just be any old human and have it change your whole view of things.
Trapeze classes weren't just fun and fitness for me, they allowed me to start seeing myself in a different way. To see that my body could be good because it was strong, brave and clever (something that I'd previously felt was restricted to my brain, while my physical form was just a lumpish, oaf-y thing dragging around behind it). Learning trapeze made me feel like, maybe at some point, my body could be beautiful even though it isn't perfect. Not through having exactly the right proportions, being super-toned, magically obtaining perfect skin, or any of those stupid things I've been failing to acheive with it since I was 14, but beautiful because of the things I could teach it to do, the shapes I could train it to make. When I was taking those classes I felt connected with not just my head and my heart, but the rest of me too.
(Given all that, you probably won't be surprised that I'm looking forward to starting trapeze again!)
It's hard to experience that kind of thing without wanting to share it with others. I'm a lifetime away from being able to teach anything aerial, but I CAN tell people about how great the benefits of learning circus skills are and fully intend to do so at every given opportunity. Brace yourselves!